Good News - EPA is One Step Closer to Protecting Bristol Bay

Yesterday the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced it would conduct a “scientific assessment” of Alaska's Bristol Bay watershed to "better understand how future large-scale development projects" might impact the world’s last salmon stronghold.

The agency’s announcement followed a request from six federally recognized tribes in the Bristol Bay region asking EPA to use its authority under Section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act to protect Bristol Bay from large scale sulfide mining.  EPA received similar requests from the Bristol Bay Native Corporation (a multi-billion dollar developer and the largest land-owner in the Bristol Bay region representing almost 8,700 native shareholders) and the Bristol Bay Native Association (a non-profit corporation and tribal consortium serving the 31 federally recognized tribes in the Bristol Bay region), as well as commercial fishing interests represented by Alaska Independent Fishermen’s Marketing Association and Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association.

At the heart of the matter is Pebble Mine – a giant gold and copper mine proposed at the headwaters of the Bristol Bay watershed.  The Bristol Bay watershed feeds one of the most productive wild salmon fisheries in the world, supporting valuable (around $450 million annually) fish and tourism-related activity, indigenous people, and a vast array of wildlife.   Recognizing the importance of the area, the Obama Administration barred offshore oil and gas exploration in Bristol Bay last year.  Interior Secretary Ken Salazar described Bristol Bay as “a national treasure that we must protect” and “too special” to drill.

EPA Regional Administrator Dennis McLerran obviously agrees.  In yesterday’s announcement, he said: "The Bristol Bay watershed is essential to the health, environment and economy of Alaska. Gathering data and getting public input now, before development occurs, just makes sense.  Doing this we can be assured that our future decisions are grounded in the best science and information and in touch with the needs of these communities.”

EPA’s scientific assessment will focus primarily on the Nushagak and Kvichak watersheds, both of which would be affected by the proposed Pebble Mine.  According to 2006 estimates, mining plans call for an annual removal of over 35 billion gallons of surface water, a giant open pit two miles wide and 2,000 feet deep, an underground mine 5,000 feet deep, and the construction of five colossal earthen dams up to 740 feet high to hold back billions of tons of mining waste laced with leach-prone toxic materials.

EPA’s scientific review will focus not just on the impacts of mining projects – but also “large-scale development in general” – on the Bristol Bay watershed.

NRDC stands behind the Alaska Natives, Bristol Bay residents, and commercial and subsistence fishermen of the region in applauding EPA’s decision to conduct a scientific review of the region.  EPA Regional Administrator Dennis McLerran said yesterday that he “look[s] forward to working with Alaskans to protect and preserve this valuable resource."  We certainly look forward to working with EPA to protect Alaska’s Bristol Bay from the devastating impacts of Pebble Mine.